What is code collaboration?

Code collaboration refers to the process of multiple people working together on the same codebase. This typically involves sharing code changes and reviewing each other's work in order to improve the quality and reliability of the code. This contrasts with having each developer work solely on their own.

Code collaboration tools are software applications that enable developers to work together on a software project by providing features and functionality for version control, code review, communication, and project management.

These tools are designed to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of software development teams, as they enable team members to work together in a coordinated and collaborative way.

This is part of an extensive series of guides about software development.

Pros and cons of code collaboration

Collaborative coding has several advantages, including:

  • Debugging: Collaborating while debugging can make it easier and more efficient. Developers can work together to identify and fix bugs in real-time, rather than having to wait for a scheduled code review meeting. This can save time and reduce the likelihood of other bugs being missed.
  • Accountability: Code collaboration can increase accountability among team members. When multiple people are working on the same codebase, it becomes more difficult for one person to take shortcuts or make mistakes without it being noticed. This can lead to higher-quality code and fewer errors.
  • Project continuity: Collaborative coding can help ensure that a project remains on track. When multiple people are working on the same codebase, it becomes more difficult for one person to become a bottleneck or for work to come to a halt if one person is unavailable. Collaboration can also provide multiple perspectives on the codebase and can lead to better decision making.

There are a few potential disadvantages of collaborative coding:

  • Merging conflicts: When multiple people are working on the same codebase, it's possible for conflicting changes to be made. These changes will need to be merged, which can be time-consuming and potentially introduce bugs.
  • Communication overhead: Collaborative coding requires good communication and coordination among team members. This can be challenging, particularly if team members are working remotely or are in different time zones.
  • Limited ownership: When multiple people are working on the same codebase, it can be hard for any one person to feel a sense of ownership over the code. This can lead to a lack of motivation and a decrease in productivity.
  • Slower development: Collaborative coding can lead to slower development if team members are not able to work efficiently together. This is particularly true if there are frequent merge conflicts or if team members are not able to make progress because they are waiting on other team members to complete their tasks.

Popular collaborative coding practices

Pair programming

Pair programming is a software development technique in which two developers work together at one computer, with one person typing and the other reviewing and providing feedback in real-time. The two developers work together to write code, design solutions and debug the code. This technique is also known as "collaborative programming" or "pairing".

Two pairs of eyes are better than one, and pair programming can help catch bugs and improve code quality by providing real-time feedback and review. It can also help speed up development by allowing developers to work together on the same codebase simultaneously.

Mob programming

Mob programming is a software development technique in which a group of developers work together on the same codebase at the same time, with one person typing and the others providing feedback and suggestions in real-time. The group works together as a "mob" to write code, design solutions, and debug the code.

Mob programming is similar to pair programming, but with more than two people involved. The main idea behind mob programming is that many brains are better than two. By working together as a group, developers can share knowledge and ideas and leverage the strengths of each individual team member to improve the quality of the code and the overall development process.

However, mob programming may not be suitable for every situation or every team, because it can be harder to communicate with a larger group of people in real time. In addition, it may not be cost effective, as most members of the mob do not produce code themselves.

Code sharing

Code sharing refers to the practice of sharing code changes with other developers through version control systems such as Git or SVN. Nowadays, this is mostly done on a platform like GitHub or GitLab, with the process of pull requests or merge requests. This allows developers to work on the same codebase at different times, making changes and committing them to the version control system for other developers to review and merge.

Code sharing differs from mob programming or pair programming in that it is not a real-time collaboration technique. Code sharing allows a larger number of developers to work on a project, as it does not require everyone to be available at the same time.

Each developer works on an individual machine and later shares the code with other team members. Other developers can perform code reviews in an asynchronous way, allowing them to review code at their own pace and provide feedback without the need of a scheduled meeting. Once the code is approved, it can be merged using the version control system. This is the most popular option in the industry.

Related content: read our guide to code comments.

Mixing approaches

Most teams don’t work in only one of the above approaches, but rather mix them. It is common for a team to default to code sharing, that is, working separately and sharing code via pull requests or merge requests, but then work in pairs or mobs on specific cases. For example, discussing a code review by working at one computer together, rather than performing the entire process on GitHub.

Top collaborative coding tools

Especially while working remotely, pair programming can be extremely challenging without the right tools. There are a few popular choices for working together on the same piece of code:

Microsoft Visual Studio Live Share

Visual Studio Live Share is a tool developed by Microsoft that allows developers to collaborate in real-time on code within the Visual Studio Code editor. It enables developers to share their local development environment with others, including the ability to edit and debug code together. It allows developers to collaborate on code regardless of the development platform or device.

Visual Studio Live Share provides a range of features that make it easy for developers to collaborate in real-time, such as live editing, debugging, and peer-to-peer collaboration. It is available for free.

CodePen

CodePen is an online code editor and development environment that allows developers to write and share code snippets, demos, and full-fledged web projects. It is primarily used for web development, and it supports HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. CodePen allows developers to create and share their work with others, as well as to collaborate on projects in real-time.

CodePen allows developers to create "pens", which are individual code snippets, demos or full-fledged web projects that can be edited, shared, and embedded on other websites. It is available with free and paid options.

Codeanywhere

Codeanywhere is a cloud-based integrated development environment (IDE) that allows developers to write, edit, and collaborate on code from any device and any location. It is designed to make it easy for developers to work together on the same codebase, regardless of whether they are in the same physical location or not.

Codeanywhere supports a wide range of programming languages and frameworks, including JavaScript, Python, PHP, and more. Pricing options start at $6 per month and reach $40 per month.

CodeTogether

CodeTogether is a real-time code collaboration tool that allows developers to work on the same codebase simultaneously, regardless of their location or the programming language they are using. It is a browser-based tool that provides live code sharing, live cursor synchronization, and live chat.

CodeTogether is designed to work with a wide range of programming languages and text editors, including Visual Studio Code, IntelliJ IDEA, and Eclipse, and it can be used for both local and remote development. It also supports pair programming, mob programming and remote debugging. It is available with free and paid options.

AWS Cloud9

AWS Cloud9 is a web-based IDE that allows developers to write, run, and debug code in a variety of programming languages, including JavaScript, Python, PHP, and Ruby. It is a fully managed service that costs approximately $2 per month.

Cloud9 provides a code editor with features such as syntax highlighting, code completion, and error checking to make it easy for developers to write code. It also offers a debugging feature that allows developers to step through code, set breakpoints, and inspect variables. However, the most important feature is an integrated terminal that allows developers to run commands and access the command line directly within the IDE.

How to collaborate more effectively on coding projects

Project organization

There are several ways to keep files organized throughout a collaborative coding project:

  • Use a version control system like Git to allow developers to track changes to the codebase and keep a history of all changes.
  • Establish a clear naming convention for files and directories to keep the codebase organized and easy to navigate. For example, you can use camelCase for variable names and PascalCase for class names.
  • Use documentation to help explain the purpose of the code and how it works. This can help other developers understand the codebase better, and make it easier to maintain and update.
  • Use a clear folder structure to organize the project's files and directories. This makes it easy to locate the specific files needed.

Blameless culture

A blameless work environment is important for code collaboration projects because it promotes a culture of learning, experimentation, and continuous improvement. When people feel that they will be held accountable for mistakes or failures, they may be less likely to take risks, speak up when they see something going wrong, or admit when they make a mistake. This can lead to a lack of creativity, communication, and innovation, and can also create a culture of fear and blame.

In a blameless work environment, people feel safe to take risks, speak up, and admit their mistakes, improving communication, innovation, and problem-solving. When people feel that they can speak up without fear of punishment, they are more likely to share their ideas, concerns, and questions.

Comprehensive documentation and comments

Some developers believe that collaborative coding techniques, such as pair programming, make code documentation redundant. However, documentation remains important because it provides a way to communicate the intent and functionality of the code, even when the code is being worked on simultaneously. Good documentation can also help to ensure that the code is maintainable, understandable and readable by other members of the team.

Documentation also serves as a reference for future developers who may need to work on the project, or for the same team members who may come back to the project after a long time. This makes it easy for them to understand the codebase.

Developers must identify the purpose of the code and explain what it is supposed to do and why it is needed. They should clearly describe the inputs and outputs of the code, including the data types, format, and any constraints. This can help other developers understand how to use the code correctly.

Teams should use clear and concise language to explain the code. Avoid technical jargon and use simple terms that can be easily understood by a wide range of developers.

Learn more in our detailed guide to code comments and walkthrough documentation

Code collaboration with Swimm


Code collaboration and knowledge sharing are important for software development teams that believe up-to-date and accurate code documentation builds trust on engineering teams. Swimm’s knowledge management tool for code greatly help code collaboration by sharing the relevant knowledge between engineers.

In practice, the process of collaborating on code by creating internal documentation could simply include writing a few sentences in a document about the circumstances of a bug fix, clarifying why a part of the codebase was written a certain way. Or a part of the code that is otherwise confusing may require clarification in an internal doc.

Swimm makes it easy to facilitate code collaboration between developers on engineering teams. Docs live in Markdown files within your codebase, and Swimm provides code documentation templates to help you fill in the blanks with prompts to give your own explanation of the code. Once you’ve created documentation, it is kept up to date using Swimm’s patented Auto-sync algorithm, which analyzes what is happening in your codebase. Swimm then either notifies you by sending you a comment on your PR, or automatically accepts the Auto-sync suggestions. Swimm’s GitHub App helps devs streamline PRs so that your documentation always stays up to date.

Learn more about Swimm, and see Swimm in action for yourself by signing up for a 1:1 demo here.

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